Once declared “Britain’s most violent prisoner” by the country’s tabloids, Charles Bronson just might be the last person you’d expect to be an artist. Bronson’s art isn’t what might be considered “beautiful” in the traditional sense of the word. However, those who appreciate modern art will find themselves unable to deny that Bronson’s works are certainly thought-provoking and, at the very least, have some merit.
The artwork of Charles Bronson came to my attention after watching the 2008 film Bronson starring Tom Hardy and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. The film details the life of Charles Bronson, who was born as Michael Gordon Peterson but then changed his name in 1987 on the advice of his street-fighting promoter.
The biopic offers a semi-realistic look into Bronson’s introduction to a life of crime, his apparent love-hate relationship with the penal system, and his many outlandish instances of compulsive violence.
Toward the end of the film, the audience gets a glimpse of a different side of Bronson: one that’s able to lose himself in the arts and produce some pretty intriguing works. After focusing briefly on these artistic endeavors, the film ends with a violent relapse in which Bronson kidnaps a prison employee, covers himself in black paint, and beats the shit out of a brigade of prison guards.
Today, years after the film came to theatres, is Charles Bronson still smashing prison guards’ helmets with his bare fists, or has he carved out a brighter path for himself? A path in which his fits of violence have been replaced by strokes of artistic expression?
Let’s take a look at the notorious criminal’s years after the Bronson film came out and the impact he’s made on the world of art. These are the brilliant artworks of Charles Bronson, a man once known as Britain’s most violent criminal.
Descent Into Criminality
Michael Peterson was born in Luton, Bedfordshire in 1952. As a child, Peterson seemed to be a fairly normal boy and possibly even an upstanding citizen. In fact, his aunt went so far as to say, “As a boy, he was a lovely lad. He was obviously bright and always good with children. He was gentle and mild-mannered, never a bully; he would defend the weak.”
He started getting himself into trouble during his teenage years and was dismissed from his first-ever job at Tesco after attacking his manager.
Michael Peterson’s first brush with the law came when he was arrested in 1974 (before he had taken on the name Charles Bronson), he was convicted of armed robbery after holding up a post office with a shotgun.
As a result, he was sent to Walton Gaol with a sentence of seven years. That sentence was quickly increased after Peterson had repeated altercations with other prisoners and prison staff. After smashing a glass jug over the head of a fellow prisoner, Peterson was charged with unlawful wounding and transferred to Armley Gaol.
After years of being transferred between different prisons and mental institutions and committing numerous acts of violence against prison staff and inmates, Bronson was finally released in 1987.
He returned to his childhood home and quickly got involved in underground street fighting. He claimed that he once killed a Rottweiler with his bare hands during an underground fight and that he was not proud of this because he loves animals.
After only 69 days of freedom, Bronson was imprisoned once again for robbing a jewelry store in 1988.
In 1994, Bronson was transferred to Wakefield High-Security Prison and two prison officers encouraged him to take up art as a pastime. From then on, Bronson spent a good deal of his time in solitary confinement (which was as much as 22 hours per day at times) cartooning and producing works of art that he described as “fantasy reality.”
Unfortunately, the criminal behavior did not stop with Bronson’s newfound love for art. In fact, he took a civilian education worker hostage for 44 hours after he criticized one of his drawings.
Even though his violent spells continued, Bronson repeatedly came back to cartooning as a method of release while held in solitary confinement. Eventually, art became such an important part of his life that he actually changed his name to reflect that.
Charles Arthur Salvador
Looking at the cartoons that Bronson has produced during his artistic career, one might be reminded of the style of one very prominent figure in art history: Salvador Dali. Anyone familiar with Dali’s work, particularly his earlier sketches, can clearly see how his influence has made its way into Bronson’s work.
In fact, Bronson was so inspired by the Spanish-born artist that he changed his name in 2014 to Charles Arthur Salvador to pay homage. In a written statement, Charles Salvador claimed, “The old me dried up… Bronson came alive in 1987. He died in 2014.” Hopefully, this transition signifies the end of Salvador’s felonious behavior.
Since changing his name, the Charles Arthur Salvador Art Foundation was founded to showcase and sell the prisoner’s art. The foundation was set up by Charles’s son George with the intention of helping his father, as well as other prisoners, get their art out into the world.
The artistic style of Charles Salvador is very surreal and reminiscent of Dali’s sketches, but it also has dark and disturbing elements that are clearly influenced by the artist’s time spent in the British penal system.
His pieces often include backgrounds that resembled prison walls and bars, people restrained in metal or straps, syringes (probably a reference to the incapacitating drugs Bronson has been administered), birds, and eggs.
They also typically feature a series of words to accompany the visuals, often dealing with themes of control, politics, insanity, and human rights. These days, Charles Salvador identifies himself as a “born again artist,” meaning that he feels that art has given him a second chance at life.
The Death of Bronson
Not only has Charles Salvador’s artistic journey served as a source of salvation for him personally, but he’s also gained some recognition from members of the larger art community. In fact, an organization called Art Below was responsible for getting one of Charles Salvador’s works in the London Underground railway system.
The piece was displayed there until the National Victims’ Association expressed criticism over the display of the work and demanded it be removed.
However, the works of Charles Salvador can still be seen in a public forum. Fundraised by the art group Guerilla Zoo, the “Death of Bronson” exhibition took place in 2015 to celebrate the death of “Britain’s most violent prisoner” and the rebirth of the man born Michael Peterson that now goes by Charles Salvador.
Around the same time that the “Death of Bronson” exhibition was going on, a set of postcards that are believed to have been drawn on by Charles Salvador went up for sale. An art gallery owner said that the postcards were discovered in the now-closed Bedlam Bar in Hampstead and that they were inscribed with the words “a Bronson creation.”
Today, if you want to own one of Charles Salvador’s works, you can purchase prints and originals on the Charles Arthur Salvador Art Foundation website. While some may think that buying art that supports this lifelong criminal is an endorsement of his past criminal behavior, I would say that Charles Salvador’s art is a celebration of his journey to overcome his mental illness and reform himself into an inspired artist instead of a brutish thug.